By Kitty Lea Angell
“Confessions of a Bullied…” Google it; you’ll find scads of personal stories out there. I recently posted an article on YourHub about my experiences with being bullied in a religious community. I’m one voice among many. These incidents occurred more than 20 years ago. Like many others, I’ve been told that I need to quit whining, get over it, and move on. The problem is that for many of us, bullying does not remain quietly in our pasts; it surfaces again and again as we make our way through present-day society. I hear the neighbors shouting and my blood freezes as I reach for the phone. At work, a customer gets in my face and my first instinct is to bolt for cover. In the grocery store, in the news, at work, we see countless examples of how little bullies have grown up to become big bullies. Alright, I’m a professed whiner. Today I’m whining about how we contribute to today’s problem and our collective responsibility for any kind of solution.
It’s ironic – and sad – how bullying and abuse tend to be enforced through the role models in our society. We can lecture all we like, but others are going to look at how we walk the talk. For me, there’s little credibility with the upright citizen who decries bullying in school and then turns around and declares that all Muslims should be shot, or that Matthew Shepard got what he deserved. What are the young and impressionable going to think if they get yelled at for picking on their little brother and then see Mom or Dad hitting or humiliating his/her partner?
Let me first backtrack to clarify that not all of the bullies I met in junior high and high school came from abusive homes. Nor were they from “poor” communities that are stereotyped for abuse. Many of them were upper-middle class; their parents could afford the tuition for a private school (and the designer jeans and the nice car). We didn’t have vouchers back then, but I received the equivalent in a church scholarship. The class difference amounted to the same thing, though; it set me apart. I was picked on for wearing used clothes and because my father drove a dump truck instead of being a CEO.
Unfortunately, that misplaced sense of entitlement can be just as damaging to society. Look at all the adult bullies who think they can get their way by throwing their weight around in the consumer world (“I’ll sue!”). When I was a kid, my dad was an embarrassment at restaurants, threatening and cussing out the poor underpaid waitress because he wanted a discount on the all-you-can-eat menu. Having worked in customer service for over a decade, I’ve seen countless customers terrorizing the service representatives because they didn’t want to pay full price for their concert ticket, financial planning membership, etc. Despite what many companies teach their employees, the customer is not always right, even if he’s screaming abuse at you across the counter. We’re just reinforcing what we learned on the playground.
As one who is intimately familiar with the ups and downs of animal rescue, I can also vouch for the connection between how people treat animals and how they treat others whom they consider to be their “inferiors.” Not always – I know quite a few animal rescue folks who are gentle and compassionate with animals while being extremely hateful toward their fellow wo/man. But American Humane is not the only national organization that has drawn a parallel between animal abuse and violent crime. So, if you say “love your neighbor” and then you go home and kick the dog, it’s not a wash for me. If you shoot the neighborhood cats or bludgeon the local deer but claim to be compassionate, I don’t see the connection. It’s an ongoing struggle to drive the point home: animal abuse is not an example we want to set for our kids, either.
I know I’m not alone when I observe that bullying and abuse often continue because we permit it. I know it takes a while for many of us to understand this at a core level when we’ve been taught all our lives that we deserved the treatment we received from our parents, teachers, spouses, etc. It’s hard to get up the courage to say “Don’t ever raise your hand to me again,” and mean it, when we still believe that this abusive partner might be the best offer we’ll ever get in life. I have a number of friends who have fled to safe-houses… and then have meekly returned to their abusers months, weeks, or even days later. I’ve also had friends who have volunteered in this aspect of human service: compassion fatigue runs high here, too! They’ve admitted how hard it is to see the women (usually, though I know of some men, too) they’ve worked so hard to protect return to their abusers. Personally, it scares me, because I know what beliefs and experiences encourage us to put up with the bullying and abuse. We often tend to believe what we’ve been taught by society, and by our own personal experiences. We’ve been taught to permit it.
I remember an old friend’s story about the one time a boyfriend ever hit her. She took after him with a kitchen knife and chased him out of the house. Then she packed up her bags and left. She didn’t actually hurt him, but he was freaked out by a woman who would actually fight back. She’s never really been abused, and she’s never had any enforcement to the beliefs I was exposed to: turn the other cheek, women should obey, you had it coming. On the contrary, she knows she does deserve better; it shows in the way she carries herself and in the way she responds to any attempt at intimidation. Nobody dares to mess with her.
I’m not saying we need to take a John Wayne or Lorena Bobbitt approach to abuse or bullying. Nor do I think it’s fair when victims are prosecuted for acting in self defense. There’s got to be some way we can each learn just to say “Enough!” and mean it. It takes courage to tell the abusers and bullies in our own lives to stop, and if they don’t stop, it takes even more courage for us to leave! Why should we permit it in our homes, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our society? This dichotomous thinking occurs on so many levels. We vote for laws that say it’s okay to discriminate against people who are different. We sit by or slink away when somebody in the next cubicle is harassed for being “fat,” or gay, or Mexican, or Muslim. We hear our neighbor beating his girlfriend and don’t call the police unless they’re disturbing our sleep.
Likewise, leaders in our society spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on “moral threats” like gay marriage and condoms in school… Meanwhile, women and children – often in those same congregations of “moral” voters – are ignored while they’re being beaten, raped, molested, harassed, or otherwise abused by their straight husbands, fathers, uncles, or neighbors. I’ve met women who were, ahem, “forcibly” raped and sometimes even impregnated by a male family member – with the consent of the pastor/priest. I noticed that it wasn’t until the men spoke up and it became a “homosexual” issue that the media and the Church started paying attention to centuries of abuse. No, I am not advocating or minimizing same-sex abuse, or the abuse of men! Whatever kind abuse is being ignored or permitted…can’t we just say that, all across the board, it’s not okay!?
It’s an ongoing struggle, and it doesn’t have just one fix. The countless articles and blogs out there attest to how many people have been affected by the issue. Hopefully as adults, we can see how we’ve contributed to the problem by our own examples. Hopefully as adults, we can also take responsibility for setting new examples and contributing to a real, lasting solution.